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Analysis: A look back at J.D. Vance's first year in office

J.D. Vance wears a gray suit, white shirt and blue tie as he gestures while speaking during a senate committee hearing
Andrew Harnik
Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, speaks as Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 7, 2023.

A year ago, I posited, which J.D. Vance will show up in the Senate? Now we know.

Prior to 2022, it's unlikely Donald Trump even knew Vance's name.

But now, as Vance's first year in Congress comes to a close, he may well be the ex-president's favorite senator.

When the 39-year-old freshman senator opens his mouth, either on the floor of the Senate or on X, his social media platform of choice, it is music to Trump's ears.

And why not?

Without Trump, Vance would probably not be a member of the exclusive club we call the Senate.

In late 2021 and early 2022, Vance was locked in an Ohio primary battle for the GOP Senate nomination — an open seat, thanks to the retirement of Rob Portman.

Then Vance's campaign got an enormous boost with a $3 million contribution from Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who was a friend of Trump.

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A Trump endorsement of Vance followed quickly — even though Trump seemed to have a hard time remembering his candidate's name, at one point calling him "J.D. Mandel," conflating his name with that of his then-opponent, Josh Mandel.

Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance speaks as former President Donald Trump listens at a campaign rally at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio.
Michael Conroy
Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance speaks as former President Donald Trump listens at a campaign rally at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia, Ohio.

But the Trump endorsement pulled him across the finish line in the primary; and Vance went on to win the general election with 53% of the vote to 47% for the Democratic candidate, Tim Ryan.

Since taking office last January, Vance has consistently been Trump's voice in the Senate and a thorn in the side to his party's Senate leader, Mitch McConnell.

"The Cruzs and the Hawleys can say the same things, but Vance thinks he can do it in a more appealing way," said David Niven, political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.

Recently, the online news service Axios published a story listing Vance as one of Trump's potential running mates in 2024 — or, at the very least, a significant cabinet position should Trump win a second term.

Vance has said he would rather stay in the Senate and help the Trump cause that way.

"That's what they all say," Niven said. "They often change their minds if they are asked."

Requests to Vance's press office for an interview drew no response. And several Republicans we talked to declined to talk on the record about the senator.

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One of his colleagues, though, Sen. Mitt Romney, had quite a bit to say about Vance, according to the book about the former GOP presidential nominee written by McKay Coppins.

"I don't know that I can disrespect someone more than J.D. Vance," Romney told Coppins during the 2022 campaign.

Romney said he respected Vance after reading Hillbilly Elegy but was through with him after Vance's conversion to Trump and the MAGA world.

"Mitt Romney served in the Senate alongside people like Cruz and Rick Santorum, and he saves his scorn for J.D. Vance," Niven said. "That says a lot."

What Vance is saying — and doing

Vance, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, has not always been hyper-partisan in his first year in Congress. He has teamed up with Democratic colleagues Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Dick Durbin of Illinois on legislation clawing back at the power of the nation's biggest banks.

Vance has also teamed up with the senior senator from Ohio, Democrat Sherrod Brown, on issues arising from the train derailment disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.

But, on social media, Vance is pretty much all MAGA, all the time.

Here's what Vance had to say on X about an article in Forbes magazine written by a DEI consultant:

"I'm just done with this sh*t. It's racist and it's gross. Forbes should be ashamed of themselves for publishing it. The author is a 'diversity, equity, and inclusion' consultant. I've directed my staff to investigate whether her 'business' receives any public money from Ohio."

No word on how that investigation is going. But he followed it up with a long missive to his undergraduate alma mater, The Ohio State University:

"Today I wrote to the leadership of Ohio State, a university I love, to ask about the troubling rise of racial prejudice on campus. If universities keep pushing racial hatred, euphemistically called DEI, we need to look at their funding."

There is a 12-hour DEI certificate program at Ohio State — as exists at a multitude of public and private universities in this country — and it is a totally elective course. No one is forced to take it. Even if they could use a little DEI awareness.

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Last week, when Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president, came to Washington to meet with President Biden and members of the U.S. Senate, to ask for passage of a $61 billion aid package for his country's effort to drive out Vladimir Putin's invasion of his country, Vance was one of a handful who thumbed his nose at Zelenskyy. He thumbed his nose, too, at the GOP minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who welcomed Zelenskyy to the Capitol and supports the aid package.

Vance went on "War Room," the podcast of Trump strategist Steve Bannon, and had this to say:

"Republicans have said, 'You're not getting another dime for Ukraine unless you do something serious about the border.' Zelenskyy is here to badger Senate Republicans into foregoing negotiations on border security in order to write him another blank check."

Never did Vance mention the fact that the aid package would just be replacing the weapons the U.S. has given the Ukraine government — weapon systems that, in fact, are manufactured in the U.S. and creating American jobs. To the tune of $808 million so far in Ohio alone.

Vance even told Bannon that there are some lawmakers who want to cut Social Security benefits so that Zelenskyy's ministers "can buy a bigger yacht."

One of Vance's Republican colleagues, Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, told The Hill that's "total and unmitigated bullsh*t."

Vance caused a stir earlier this month when he wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggesting the Justice Department should investigate a Washington Post opinion writer, Robert Kagan, who wrote an article critical of Trump.

Kagan said a second Trump term could well be a dictatorship, based on the comments Trump and his lieutenants have made about using the federal government to go after their "enemies,'' including the media.

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In his letter, Vance accused Kagan of advocating "rebellion" and suggesting the security clearance of Kagan's wife, a State Department official, be reviewed.

Vance told Capitol Hill reporters his comments were "tongue-in-cheek." He was just viewing the Kagan column under the same lens Special Counsel Jack Smith used to bring charges against Trump for his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results.

If the letter to Garland and Blinken was "tongue in cheek," there are a lot of people out there who didn't laugh.

At least now they know which version of J.D. Vance they're getting.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.